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New forms of warfare challenge international humanitarian law

The "crucial balance between humanity and military necessity" is the focus of a Commonwealth conference on the laws of war, held this week in Canberra.

Wednesday July 22, 2015

Phoebe Wynn-Pope portrait
Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope, Director of IHL at Australian Red Cross.

The conference brings together experts in international humanitarian law from Commonwealth nations and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.  

In her address, Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope from Australian Red Cross reminded participants that international humanitarian law (IHL) was a vital instrument in separating acceptable conduct of hostilities from unacceptable violations.  

"It is in this space that we must ensure a full and complete understanding of IHL is held not only by our armed forces, by other armed groups, but also by all conflict facing individuals and organisations within society," she said.  

Last week, Red Cross participated in Talisman Sabre, an Australian and US military training exercise. Staff and volunteers simulated the delivery of humanitarian aid in a battlefield environment. The exercise helped to familiarise military and humanitarian aid actors with each other's roles.  

Yet IHL must now adapt to new forms of armed conflict. The conference will explore the implications of technologies such as drones and automated weapons systems, and cyberspace as a domain for warfare. While IHL applies to these new weapons and means of warfare, there are legal and practical challenges with ensuring their use complies with existing IHL norms.  

As Dr Wynn-Pope reminded the conference, Red Cross has a responsibility to work with the public authorities to meet the challenges confronting humanitarian law.  

"The law is designed for the protection of the most vulnerable, wherever they may be found.  And National Societies and we that staff them, are bound to those in need by both our common humanity, and the principles that are found in the law we are here to explore."  

Learn more about the laws of war.

Above: The International Committee of the Red Cross disseminates the laws of war in situations of armed conflict around the world. Photo: ICRC